Pensacola, Florida
Monday November 12th 2018

Archives

Making Escambia County Even Better

An Interview with Administrator Jack Brown
By Rick Outzen

On Friday, Jack Brown sat at his conference table on the fourth floor of the Ernie Lee Magaha Governmental Building ready to talk about his first year as Escambia County administrator. It’s a casual Friday, so he’s dressed in jeans. Over his shoulder, you can see the M. C. Blanchard Judicial Building and, in the distance, the Pensacola Bayfront Stadium and Pensacola Bay.

After a 15 minutes of jostling over my earlier report that Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons was retiring and would be hired as an assistant Escambia County administrator—something Brown would neither confirm nor deny—we got down to talking about his thoughts on his new home, Escambia County.

“Great place to live, very caring community. A lot of really good people that want to make Escambia County a better place to live,” he said smiling. “We’ve got challenges, but I’m amazed at a number of volunteers that we have in the community that, for all the right reasons, want to work together to make it a better place to live.”

When I had met with the county administrator in late 2014, Brown had negotiated a new three-year contract with two one-year extensions and a $170,000 salary—$20,000 more than his initial pay. We discussed the four biggest issues facing Escambia County heading into 2015: Pit ordinances, storm water, jail and a recycling agreement with the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority (Inweekly, “2015 To Do Lists,” 1/8/15). We revisited those issues.

Pits
“Let’s start with the pits. I think we’ve made good progress on the pits,” Brown said.

County staff is finalizing an ordinance for Construction and Demolition Debris landfills and should have it before the county commission soon.

“I think a lot of it just has to do with consistency and monitoring,” said Brown on the new ordinance. “Making sure that we are following through with the inspections and the guidance and policies that the board has laid out.”

When he came to work last summer, the Wedgewood neighborhood had mounted its protest against the Rolling Hills C&D Recycling Center (Inweekly, “A Shame Before God,” 6/26/14). Landfills and borrow pits surround the predominantly African-American off of Highway 29 behind Bob Tyler Toyota. For decades, residents have complained and received little help from county staff.

That changed when Brown took over as county administrator.  Code enforcement monitored the area more consistently. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection began the nearly yearlong process of revoking the permit for Rolling Hills, which had a mound of debris that towered over the community in violation of its permit.

Brown tackled the ordinance and enforcement issues head on. In January, he held a three-hour public meeting at the Marie Young Community Center to review the proposed ordinances. The residents of Wedgewood weren’t much interested in the stricter ordinances and used the opportunity to voice their complaints about the pits and landfills in their neighborhood.

The county administrator understood that years of county leadership not listening to their complaints had made the people of Wedgewood distrustful, so he listened patiently.

“We have not done a good job of regulating these pits,” said Brown. “We didn’t have a good handle on it, but we now feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”

His approach helped diffuse the situation. He and his staff kept monitoring the air conditions in the Wedgewood area. When Rolling Hills failed to reduce its mound of debris to the permitted height, the county restricted the trucks offloading at the facility. On May 29, FDEP issued its final order that gave the company 30 days to submit its closure plan.

“The permit has been revoked by DEP,” said Brown. “Rolling Hills is still in violation with us as far as their height of the mound. Our penalties are still accumulating on them until they get it down.”

He said that Rolling Hills management was to provide the county a survey of the mound when the county invoked the special magistrate’s order that allowed it to restrict debris going into the facility.

“We still don’t have the survey given to us to show us that they’ve gone below the height requirements,” he said. “I know that the owners have been working with DEP trying to get it closed satisfactorily for DEP to where DEP doesn’t seize their bond.”

Storm water
Six weeks before Brown took office. Escambia County experienced what some have described as a 200-year rain event that flooded much of the county.  In its aftermath, the county’s Central Booking and Detention exploded due to a natural gas leak, killing two prisoners, paralyzing a corrections officer and injuring nearly 200 others.

More than 20 inches of rain fell in less than one day. County estimates of damage to government infrastructure and buildings topped $90 million with transportation, utilities, parks and public facilities all significantly impacted. In the days immediately following the flood, Public Works crews removed more than 280 tons of debris and pumped one million gallons of water out of neighborhoods where the storm water systems were overwhelmed.  The floods resulted in 2,318 identified infrastructure damaged sites.

In a press release in April, Brown pointed out that  89 projects valued at $10.3 million had been approved for Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance. Of those, 23 projects totaling $4 million had been completed as of April 30.  Sixteen Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief Program projects had been completed at a total cost of $2.5 million. Additionally, the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection made $3 million in funding available to complete the following several projects, including Crescent Lake and Ten Mile Creek.

The county and city of Pensacola have worked on storm water projects to avoid such flooding in the future

Brown said, “We are in the final phases of putting together the white paper. We’ve done a lot of projects. We’ve made huge strides in grants.”

He said that his staff has worked “hand in hand” with the city of Pensacola to apply for a HUD sustainability grant. The first phase of that grant was to be announced in late May, but the announcement wasn’t made. However, Brown is optimistic.

“I talked with Miles Anderson from state mitigation yesterday,” Brown said. “He said that they hadn’t heard anything officially yet, but I kind of got a nod and a wink that we might be getting some good news on a certain project.”

He said most flood repairs have been made. “We’re looking at long-term changes to our storm water system,” Brown said. “We’ve been working with the Storm Water Advisory Team (SWAT), which is doing a good job. They’re going through and looking at the prioritization of projects and making recommendations for potential re-prioritization. Those discussions will happen at an upcoming meeting of staff and SWAT team. They will be taken back to the county board of commissioners.”

Jail
The $161-million question is what will the county do about replacing the Central Booking & Detention (CBD) facility and upgrading the worn out county jail.

In May, Staff told the Board of County Commissioners that the cost of a new 1,476-bed facility, which would replace both main jail and CBD, was $160.9 million. The cost to replace only the CBD is $76.9 million. The cost to renovate the Main Jail and repair the CBD is $108.8 million.

County staff presented three possible sites that would house the jail, CBD and other corrections offices:

1. Palafox/Airport: $4.5 million for entire block

2. McDonald Property (old strip center @ corner of Fairfield and Pace): $3 million, but owners want $10 million.

3. North of Superfund site on Palafox: No appraisals. Might get some of the property at no cost from DEP/EPA.

The board did not vote on a final site, but the county administrator expects a decision soon.  Brown recapped what has happened over the past six to seven months.

“We have gone through a grand jury during this period, as you know,” he said. The grand jury found no one guilty of any crime in the jail explosion. It made several recommendations, including handing control back over to the Escambia County Sheriff, which he expressed little interest in doing.

The county is still working with its insurance carriers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on reimbursements.  “The county had $25 million in flood insurance for our 212 buildings,” said Brown. “We had 10 buildings that were flooded which took up a lot of that flood money.”

The temporary housing of prisoners in Santa Rosa and Walton counties has been an issue. “FEMA goes back and forth whether or not they’re going to pay for temporary housing,” he said. “We’ve been paying out of that $25 million for some of the temporary housing. “

The board agreed in May to have staff send out a Request for Proposal for a temporary facility. The county spends $223,000 a month to house prisoners in Santa Rosa and Walton counties. By building a temporary jail facility, the county would save nearly $4 million until the new or renovated jail opens in 2018.

The temporary housing issue is important because that $223,000 going out of the county each month could be helping our local economy. One option is to erect modular units to house prisoners, an option Brown called a “win-win.”

“The modular units that were being designated by the state are a win-win,’ he said. “As we start looking at the cost, I’ve challenged my staff to get a deeper understanding of numbers and understand the ROI for the community. I do think it’s better if we have it in-house, if possible. We could have jobs here in our community instead with better control.”

The decision on the location of the CBD could impact storm water drainage. The storm water from the Leonard Street site fed into the Long Hollow-Delano Basin and flooded much of downtown Pensacola.

“Whatever we can do up in the jail area to help reduce drainage, could also have an impact on the city of Pensacola,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re going to have more retention in that area.”

The county’s insurance carriers have denied the $45 million all-perils insurance claim. Brown said, “We’re going to pursue mediation with them on that to try to resolve the issue. FEMA has been waiting for a decision from the insurance carriers. What I’ve done is told FEMA we want them to treat this as a final decision so we can go ahead and move forward with design work for the jail, which they’ve been holding up on.”

He said, “The initial report from the insurance carriers came back, and they say we can rebuild the CBD in the current location to pre-event standards at about  $18 million. Our independent structural engineer study has come back. When we take out all the soft costs that FEMA will not pay for, such as plans, drawings, and stuff, that figure comes up to about $18 million as well, if you’re going to build it there on the site.”

However, rebuilding to pre-event conditions won’t suffice because law changes in square footage requirements.  The new code drives the rebuild costs at the same location up to $41 million, but that won’t take care of the drainage issues.

“It doesn’t solve the problem if that entire area floods,” Brown said. “You’ve got a $41-million jail that still can’t evacuate inmates out of or bring fire trucks or stuff into in the middle of a flood.”

He also said that rebuilding the CBD on the same spot doesn’t deal with the overcrowding and other structural and layout issues the Department of Justice had with the county jail.  He said, “The central detention booking facility, which was the better of our two jail facilities.”

The capital improvements, renovations and repairs to old jail are estimated to cost another $32 million. “Where’s the funding going to come from?,” asked Brown. “That’s what we’re trying to work on with the state. What can we get from FEMA? What can we get from the insurance carriers?”

He added, “For the $25 million, we won’t get the jail repaired. It will be whatever we recover from the $45 million-plus and what we get from the state.”

If the damages and repairs are over 50 percent, then some additional funding can kick in to help with moving to a new location. “You have to fight for it,” he said. “That’s the direction we’re going to have to go. We’re going to have to fight for what we get. We’re going to have to work hand in hand with FEMA and the state and our legislators to make sure we get funding.”

Brown added, “We’re going to have to look at all funding sources and the determine what part are we going to have to pay.”

The jail recently had a death. Law enforcement did not suspect foul play, but the medical examiner has not issued her final report.  I asked the county administrator about his plans for the jail infirmary.

He said, “Right now, we’ve had a consultant come in and do a medical review of our processes. He’s made some recommendations. We’re looking if we’re going to go out and the bid on that or not.”

Brown said that he expected the consultant’s final report in another week.  He will review and brief the commissioners on whether the jail medical services should be contracted to an outside vendor.

ECUA & Recycling
Part of former County Administrator George Touart’s legacy is the nearly two-year battle with ECUA over tipping fees at the Perdido Landfill, recycling, and possible consolidation. When I met with him in December 2014, Brown was committed to working out a recycling agreement with the utility.

ECUA and the county were analyzing the feasibility of building a multi-million dollar solid waste processing facility to help the two entities meet the state recycling goal of 75 percent for trash collections. The two entities needed to make decisions on a vendor to build and operate the recycling facility and on its location, either on Perdido Landfill, ECUA land or elsewhere.

Seven companies responded to the request for qualifications. The companies were vetted by a joint county/ECUA selection committee made up of Randy Rudd, ECUA’s deputy executive director of shared services; Mitch Kessler, a consultant to ECUA; Pat Johnson, Escambia County’s solid waste director; Chuck McClendon, the county’s consultant, and Scott Luth, of the Community Economic Development Agency.

As of April, the committee had narrowed down the list to two finalists, Infinitus Energy of Plantation, Fla. and the Dewey Group, based in Newport Beach. Calif. Both companies proposed to build a processing center at the Perdido Landfill.

The new facility is expected to create a minimum of 120 jobs, reduce fuel consumption for ECUA, which has been hauling its recyclables to Montgomery, and extend the life of the Perdido Landfill.  It could also become a regional recycling facility capable of handling solid waste from surrounding counties and south Alabama.

“We’re down to the point that at the next board meeting on the 25th, we will be taking to our board a recommendation for the top vendor,” said Brown.  “ECUA will be taking to the board their recommendation for who the top vendor is. We’ll both be requesting permission to enter into negotiations.”

Reorganization
Towards the end of the interview, we came back to staffing, particularly Brown’s senior leadership team. He has made few staff changes during his first 12 months. Assistant County Administrator Larry Newsom and Corrections Director Gordon Pike retired. He promoted his budget director, Amy Lovoy, to assistant county administrator, and hired Michael Tidwell to replace Pike.

If it comes to pass, hiring Chip Simmons may be his boldest move to date—not that Brown was ready to discuss that move yet. However, he did say that he would be briefing the commissioners later this month on how he wants to restructure the county staff. The new organization chart will be organized more functionally.

He has studied the county’s work flows, figuring out spans of control. He wants to improve functional lines of communication. Brown said he based his reorganization on “how do you have adequate span of control and how do you align things functionally so that it’s easier and more efficient to manage. “

In the past, the county budgets have been contentious with gavels flying and plenty of juicy headlines for the media.  Brown doesn’t expect much drama this summer.

He said, “We’ve worked hard to meet the needs of the community. The court system, sheriff, the island authority continue to work with our people to make sure they’re where they need to be to be competitive and have a good life. Doing all that and trying to balance to budget and stay within our means.”

What about the future of the Santa Rosa Island Authority?

He said, “My intent, and I think the intent of the board, is we really want this to be a partnership where we’re trying to work together. I think most of these issues are all about leadership. If we don’t care about who gets the credit or who looks good and stuff and worry about solving problems. I think it all goes a lot easier. I know the island authority runs a good ship. I think everybody understands we want a clean beaches, clean facilities and good lifeguards. We don’t want to be stepping backward.”

Pausing, Brown reflected a minute and added,  “I think the bottom line is Escambia County is a great place to live. We want it to be an even better place.”

Amen.

—————————————————————-

Jack Brown
Escambia County Administrator
Hired: June 2014

Job Description
Chief Administrative Officer of Escambia County, responsible to the commission for the orderly operations of matters within the Board of County Commissioners’ jurisdiction.

Experience
County Administrator, Taylor County   2007-14
Associate Director, Florida Center for Reading Research, Florida State University 2002-07
County Commissioner, Taylor County  2002-06
General Manager, RDS Manufacturing, Perry, Fla.   2001-02
County Manager, Taylor County  1997-01

Professional Organizations
Florida Association of County Managers, Chairman
Florida City County Managers Association
Florida Counties Foundation, Board of Directors
Florida Association of Counties Trust, Board of Directors

Professional Presentations
Florida Association of Counties (FAC) County Certification meetings:  “The Policy and Budget Connection” and “County Structure and Authority in the Real World”
FAC County Administrators’ Roundtable: “Managing in Challenging Economic Times – Service Delivery”
FAC Rural Caucus: “Taylor County’s Vision 2060 – The County Visioning Process”

Education
Masters Military Art-Theater Operations (Strategic Planning), U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, 1995
Masters of Art-National Security and Strategy, U.S. Naval War College Command and Staff, 1994
Masters of Science Business Administration, Florida Institute of Technology, 1989
Bachelors of Science-Business Administration, University of Florida, 1978